Wednesday, August 17, 2022

A Spartan identity

MSU launches half-million dollar ad campaign to use the worldwide Spartan community as selling point

June 21, 2010

MSU can be defined by its basketball team. By study abroad. As an agriculture college, a top research university or a party school. The green helmet. The block “S.” “Go green!” “Go white!”

But when asked what MSU is, there is not just one answer. And school officials have said that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Because MSU does not have a consistent public image, those who view it in a negative light are less likely to see the most positive aspects of the university. The university’s lack of unifying identity might be costing it students.

Which is why MSU has been working for almost a year on a campaign budgeted at $478,000 to create an identity, or “brand,” built not upon men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo or tear-gas incidents, but on the stories of the nearly half-a-million Spartans all across the world.


Throughout the last several years, universities have begun focusing on how they present themselves to potential students and partners. As a result, competition between colleges is increasing. A weak economy continually shrinks the pool of students who can afford college. Additionally, potential students have the ability to access schools across the nation using the Internet.

And it will take more than a good logo to attract students. It will take a whole new identity — a brand.

“(A brand is) the general public’s perception of who a company is, or who a university is,” said Brendan Quinn, creative director for 160over90, a branding agency that has worked with MSU since last summer on developing the university’s brand. “Our job was to come in and hone the different messages, and reflect how the school really is broadcasting (its image) to the world.”

When Quinn first began to look at MSU for the campaign, he said he noticed inconsistent designs and an overall lack of a cohesive brand.

“(I did) some quantitative and qualitative research and got to the heart about what MSU is about,” Quinn said. “What we found is the school is doing some pretty amazing things and has great accomplishments that fall by the wayside.”

But the process of branding has to do less with colors and shapes and more with a sense of who MSU is as a community, Quinn said.

“There are hundreds of universities and colleges across the country,” he said. “A lot of them have similar attributes (to MSU). … You start digging deeper within the university and really spend time on campus, you begin to understand what makes it different and unique.”

Back to the basics

“MSU has engaged in some marketing before,” said Heather Swain, assistant vice president for university relations at MSU. “This is more of an intentional effort to make sure we are communicating what we stand for.”

Although past advertising mostly has been limited to commercials on the Big Ten Network and cable networks during games, the new campaign aims to seek out past and potential Spartans from coast to coast. Or, more specifically, from Chicago to Orange County, Calif.

“They’re areas where advancement is a priority,” Swain said. “Areas for connecting with alumni and (the) admissions office in looking for out-of-state students. We wanted to try some traditional advertising.”

Large print ads are displayed in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and in Bob Hope and John Wayne airports in Orange County. In May, an ad for MSU appeared in regional issues of Time Magazine and Newsweek. An online campaign ran on numerous websites to attract students, and a 30-second commercial recently finished running on cable networks in the target areas.

“When you’re working on your brand, you do it all the time,” Swain said.

“It’s not just about running an ad campaign.”

Which is why when the commercials stop running, there’s a second phase already being put into place, Swain said.

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Spartan Sagas

Throughout the last several weeks, Jim Peck, MSU’s director of University Photography and Videography, has been collecting the stories of MSU alumni for the Spartan Sagas, an initiative seeking to build the university’s identity upon the stories and accomplishments of Spartans themselves.

“They’re tremendous people, and people will be surprised and pleased to know they are part of the same (Spartan) family,” Peck said.

The campaign encourages MSU alums to nominate Spartans who are making a positive impact on the world. Certain stories have been selected and filmed by University Relations. Filming began a few weeks ago, but names of selected Spartans will not be released until the campaign officially launches in mid-July.

“These people are truly out there making a difference all the time,” Peck said.

After the campaign officially launches, other alumni will be invited to submit their own stories to the website,, through pictures, text or video.

“What we’re doing is telling the stories of the school and doing it in an engaging and interesting way,” Quinn said.

Bonnie Knutson, a professor of hospitality business and MSU alumna, said MSU’s image is part of her, personally.

“As an alumni I carry part of the brand with me not only in my heart, but my diploma is a reflection of the value of that brand,” Knutson said. “The more the value of the brand is enhanced through this campaign, (the more) people have a greater interest in and respect for MSU.”


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